“You’ve got to focus on now to get to that point you want to be.”
That was then Sporting Kansas City prospect Erik Palmer-Brown’s philosophy seven years ago, when he was 18 years old. The quote was in a 2015 article from OZY.com by Kevin Fixler titled “Erik Palmer-Brown: Soccer Phenom.”
The article title was stereotypical, yet typical of journalistic “spin” or even “click bait.” The career story that followed was, and is, much more grounded. Just like Palmer-Brown’s mindset at 18.
But this is not a history lesson. Erik Palmer-Brown’s story is very much in the here and now. Like World Cup 2022 in Qatar coming this November for the U.S. National Team here and now.
After a four-year absence, the Ohio-born; Lee’s Summit, MO-raised center back known as just “EPB” to many returned to the U.S. Senior Men’s National Team March 25th. At famed Azteca Stadium, versus Mexico, during the last round of World Cup Qualifying of all the places, opponents, and scenarios.
“…you can’t describe it, playing against Mexico in Azteca. The way… I got told to warm up, and then just went straight in [at right back] was crazy.”
After those 10 minutes to close out a critical 0-0 draw that helped the US qualify for Qatar two games later, Palmer-Brown went back to his French club Troyes and earned April Player of the Month. The same club at which only a few months previous, the 25-year-old was riding the bench.
“The first part of the season didn’t go so well for me. The second part of the season a new coach (Frenchman Bruno Irles) came in, and I started playing consistently, getting some good minutes,” said Palmer-Brown in a session with the media at halftime of Sporting KC’s US Open Cup match Wednesday night at Children’s Mercy Park. “[I helped] keep [us] out of the relegation battle. It was pretty tough stuff, but playing those games in a top five league has been valuable for me. That is what has helped push me to the [U.S.] National Team.”
Irles showed faith in the Sporting product, who signed with his home club at age 16. Palmer-Brown returned Irles investment in spades and became a fixture on the backline for Troyes in the decisive final five months of the Ligue 1 season highlighted by a 3-1 win over Lille OSC and a 2-2 draw with Paris St. Germain. EPB even signed a contract with Troyes through the 2024 season in February.
And now, as fate would have it, it is possible that Palmer-Brown could not just see some time, but feature for the U.S. National Team at the World Cup. Locked in center back Miles Robinson of MLS’s Atlanta United ruptured his Achilles’ tendon in a match May 7.
“We’ve been watching EPB playing in France…,” said U.S. National Team Head Coach Gregg Berhalter as quoted by mlssoccer.com’s Charles Boehm in a recent article. “He’s been doing a good job, he plays in the three-back system, looks comfortable distributing, he’s playing against guys like Mbappe and Messi and Neymar, doing a good job. So for us it’s been really interesting watching, watching his progress.”
Palmer-Brown was under the auspices of English Premier League giants Manchester City after leaving Sporting KC in 2017 and was seen in Belgium, the Netherlands, and Austria before landing in France.
“Being overseas, making all these moves to different countries, every time I’ve moved, I’ve learned something new,” he shared. “In the French league, it is my first time in a top-five league. You learn every step of the way.”
Fortunately, Kansas City will get a firsthand look at Palmer-Brown and the US as they return to playing matches after successfully qualifying for Qatar. The Red-White-and-Blue will play four matches June 1st thru June 14 – two friendlies and two CONCACAF Nations League matches. The second friendly will be June 5th in Kansas City versus Uruguay, currently ranked 13th in the world.
Berhalter called Palmer-Brown after his club’s tilt with PSG May 8.
“A lot of [the talk was about] just playing out of the back, like what he wants from the center backs: playing out of the back, when to step in, what I can do better, just how I fit into the team system,” Palmer-Brown relayed. “He has open conversations with everyone, so it’s good to know what he wants from you.”
Berhalter also elaborated on Palmer-Brown’s competition and necessary abilities at center back in his talk with the press after announcing the 27-man roster for the next four matches.
“Condensing the field, that’s really important to our game,” said Berhalter. “So Aaron Long (New York Red Bulls) has speed, we know that he’s aggressive playing forward, pressing forward, so that’s a good sign. Erik Palmer-Brown can improve on that, but he does have the pace to cover behind him. And [Cameron Carter-Vickers] has been doing that at Celtic, when they play against most of their opponents they’re in the half of the opponent and he has to play with a lot of space behind him.”
In other words, EPB faces a battle to not only make the US roster for Qatar, but to gain significant playing time. However, Palmer-Brown has been there throughout his career, and in the relegation battle at Troyes that mirrors his struggle now.
“It was a dogfight. In those moments when you are losing games and dropping points and you’re at the bottom of the table looking at relegation, you’re nervous,” he said. “But to get those valuable experiences was really big for me...”
Palmer-Brown will be in Kansas City for a total of four days before heading to U.S. National Team training camp in Cincinnati this weekend. Though he connected with fellow Sporting offspring Gianluca Busio (now with Venezia in Italy) in Europe and with the US, discussing relegation battles and missing family, this time at home will be a more complete and soothing salve.
“To be home in Kansas City, there is no feeling like it…,” he said, his countenance gleaming. “Coming home in the summer always gets my mind right and gets me relaxed. Being able to play at home at [Children’s Mercy Park] will be one of the best feelings ever.”
The last time EPB was on a World Cup roster it was 2017. In the FIFA U-20 World Cup that year, he was named to the Best XI of the Tournament by two publications after captaining the US to the quarterfinals.
In the here and now, Palmer-Brown will harness his story.
“…You take those experiences into mind and go into camp and do the best you can, believe in yourself. It’s thoroughly what I believe when going into camp. I trust my abilities,” he said unflinchingly in front of the media swarm Wednesday night. “Every step along the way has helped me prepare. I grew every season. It was something where I never felt like I was out of my depth. When the moment comes, you have to be ready. If you miss that opportunity, it’s never coming back.”
Clearly, Palmer-Brown’s focus is on the “now” with only one goal: to get to where he wants to be.